Politics & Policy

Georgia Religious-Liberty Fight Reveals Christian Right’s Weakened Influence

Georgia governor Nathan Deal (File poto: Davis Turner/Getty)

Atlanta — For evangelical voters, it wasn’t supposed to be this way. Not in Georgia, at least.

When Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, the policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, first heard that Governor Nathan Deal had vetoed a controversial religious-liberty bill, his phone exploded with text messages. HB-757 was seen by many as a modest attempt to safeguard religious freedoms, stating, for example, that pastors could not be forced to perform same-sex weddings. Naturally, faith leaders across the state were furious, and Moore quickly became a sounding board.

“I’ve heard from the most apolitical pastors one can imagine who are shocked and disgusted. There’s a great deal of anger,” Moore says. “I don’t know that Nathan Deal will ever run for anything in Georgia again, but he would sure have a hard time if he did.”

One week after Deal’s veto, which came on Easter Monday, evangelical leaders, lawmakers, and activists across the state are still livid and threatening to make the governor pay. But for all their bluster, social conservatives may not have the political power they once did, even in a Bible-belt stronghold such as Georgia.

Deal’s veto may turn out to be the moment when long-standing tensions between the business and evangelical wings of the Republican party exploded here, and when the former definitively vanquished the latter. When the legislation landed on Deal’s desk, a bevy of corporate giants such as Disney threatened to pull their business from Georgia should he sign it. Christian leaders, including Ralph Reed, founder of the Faith & Freedom Coalition, aggressively lobbied him to stand firm. Yet Deal, who campaigned in 2010 as a champion of traditional values, decided to strike down the legislation. The Religious Right, which for decades kept the cultural shifts roiling other parts of the country out of the South, may not be able to fight off change much longer.

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“We’re going to fight hard to see this through,” says one state Republican lawmaker. “But it’s tough to avoid the sinking feeling that maybe the culture war has been lost.”

That sinking feeling has given supporters of HB-757 a sense of urgency in holding Deal accountable for the remainder of his term. In the few days since the veto, legislators and faith leaders have huddled to determine their next steps, which could include holding a demonstration at the statewide convention in June and stalling key pieces of Deal’s agenda.

Deal has staked much of his legacy on the “Opportunity School District” proposal, which would allow the state to take over failing schools and either shut them down or convert them to charters. The proposal faces a referendum in November, and some have argued that pro-HB-757 lawmakers won’t try to spike it, given the governor’s power to cut budget allocations for their districts through line-item veto. But Deal’s detractors don’t seem to be fazed.

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“You’re going to see a lot of lawmakers adopt the stance: He can take things away, but he can’t create them,” says one state senator in a veiled reference to Deal’s education proposal. (Deal declined to comment for this story.)

And when lawmakers convene for the statewide GOP convention in June, some plan to muscle religious liberty into the spotlight. “I intend to make an issue of this,” says state senator Josh McKoon. During the convention, McKoon says, “I expect that a lot of our allies will put forth a resolution on the governor’s veto taking a strong stand on what he did. That will be a jumping-off point for beginning again the debate on this subject.”

#share#But other supporters of the bill — including Lieutenant Governor Casey Cagle and House speaker David Ralston — are urging the legislature to step away from this unsavory brand of politics. They say the focus should be on crafting a new religious-liberty measure that could actually become law, and on keeping the issue itself alive until January, when many predict that such a measure could kick off the legislative session in both chambers.

“I have no doubt we’ll end up with a religious-freedom bill in Georgia. The question is: Will this governor sign it, or will his successor? My hope and desire is to pass a bill Governor Deal can sign into law,” says Reed. “The good news is the gubernatorial race is going to move the ball on this. Every candidate is going to get a very detailed questionnaire from us on where they stand.”

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Moore echoes the need to make religious liberty a litmus test in all Georgia elections moving forward, from state-legislature to gubernatorial primaries. “Deal has proven to be one more invertebrate politician in the minds of many religious people,” he says. “So going forward, there’s going to be much more sophistication when it comes to vetting candidates on issues of religious liberty. We used to just be able to take this for granted. Now there’s going to be much more of elaboration needed from candidates about what they believe.”

But it may be that in present-day Georgia, where two-thirds of voters support anti-discrimination laws to protect gays and lesbians, an aggressive campaign from a group such as the Faith & Freedom Coalition simply doesn’t have the muscle it might once have had. The landscape is a far cry from, say, the 1980s, when politicians lobbied hard for the support of the Christian Coalition and Moral Majority, or even from 2004, when a gay-marriage ban claimed support from 76 percent of voters. And as evangelical forces have become less unified — the present-day faces of the Religious Right, such as Moore, are less focused on organizing voters — the influence of Right-leaning business groups such as the Chamber of Commerce has only grown.

#related#“Economic prosperity is of course vital for the state,” says state-house member B. J. Pak, who voted against HB-757. Georgia, which currently enjoys a booming film industry thanks to generous tax credits, would have been hurt by the departure of companies such as Disney, something both the Georgia and Metro Atlanta Chambers of Commerce were quick to highlight. “It wasn’t the most significant factor in my decision, but we have to consider: What image are we projecting to the business world?”

With image-conscious corporations, from Disney to Delta Airlines to the NFL, scrutinizing Deal’s next move, that question will likely guide the remainder of his term. And with social conservatives mobilizing quickly against him, the stage is set for an increasingly fractious political dynamic. For some lawmakers, having just emerged from the state’s most consequential political debate in years, it’s a less-than-welcome prospect.

“I was hoping we might have a cooling-down period after all this was over,” says state-house Budget Committee chairman Chuck Martin. “Suffice it to say, that’s not going to happen.”

— Elaina Plott is a William F. Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism at the National Review Institute.

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